Taxpayers

… one of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups. In our time, when the old “proletarians” are becoming petty bourgeois (and the lumpen are largely excluded from the political scene), the fascism of tomorrow will find its audience in this new majority.

Umberto Eco, 1995

Fascism exists in British society in many forms. Some of these we are historically primed to recognise: the EDL, an often violent street movement based explicitly around ‘defending’ a national identity, is so obviously and overtly fascistic that it frequently serves as a distraction from other forms. Similarly, the increasing militarisation of the police, especially in the capital, fits readily with our common expectations of how state fascism may initially manifest itself. There is another form, though, which demands our attention and, while it has historical precedents, does not necessarily look like what we think fascism looks like (which makes it all the more dangerous). Crucially, it cannot be ghettoised to the ‘far-right’, but dominates centrist and liberal left discourse too. As Eco predicted some years ago, this ‘fascism of tomorrow’ emerges from ideas of majority and socio-economic class.

Fascist ideologies have traditionally been structured around the designation of an ‘in’ group and an ‘out’ group; the ‘legitimate’ and the ‘illegitimate’, ‘us’ and ‘them’. It is not simply enough to highlight difference though; ‘they’ must be shown to be, often by their mere presence, harmful to ‘us’. For those who do not subscribe to these fascistic dichotomies, the ‘out’ group can be considered a scapegoat, blamed for problems they do not create while the legitimate members of society are unified in their opposition. One of the key ways that this separation is currently presented is between tax payers and benefits claimants.

‘Taxpayer’ is perhaps the broadest term possible which still allows for an identifiable ‘out’ group (and so invites proto-fascistic populist majoritarianism) and taxpayers have long existed as an economic ‘class’. We are currently witnessing an increasing trend towards ‘taxpayer’ as a political identity, a label which people readily and proudly adopt for themselves. Unlike the libertarian understanding of this political identity, for example, which holds that the taxpayer is the involuntary victim of an exploitative relationship between state and citizen, or the socialist conception of tax as wealth redistribution providing for the unprivileged, status as a taxpayer in the rhetoric of contemporary fascism takes on an explicitly moral dimension. Being employed and paying taxes are referred to, in the passive-aggressive language of David Cameron, which is rapidly taken up across the political spectrum, as ‘doing the right thing’. It follows, therefore, that failure to pay taxes is doing the wrong thing.

If it seems unfair to consider this to be fascism (or at least to be proto-fascistic), consider it as a product of history. Fascism never died, and so was always going to re-emerge from its relative dormancy in some form. It was inevitable that any fascism that arose at this juncture would be in response to economic crisis, and so would have an explicitly economic dimension. Not only is this a form of fascism, but it is perhaps an inevitable one: all fascisms seek to unite those seen as contributing against those seen as diminishing. These notions of contribution and diminishment are usually more conceptual and metaphorical; people may be accused of helping or harming national security, the sanctity of the family or racial purity, for example. The structures of taxation and state benefits simply provide a literalised form, in which the flow of money betokens one’s worth as citizen.

This fascist approach comes most directly from, or at least is more visible in, the tabloid press. Words such as ‘scroungers’ and ‘cheats’ are consistently used with the apparently deliberate intention of cultivating a widespread sense of hostility from tax payers towards benefits claimants. Of course, salient facts (most benefits claimants also pay tax; much more is lost through corporate tax avoidance than benefit fraud, etc) do not serve as an impediment to the tenacious formation of this fascistic narrative. This overt effort to engender suspicion and resentment in readers reaches its zenith with the Sun’s ‘Beat the Cheat’ campaign (or, in their own language, ‘crusade’). The campaign, in which people are invited to report neighbours and acquaintances who might be committing benefit fraud, is firmly couched in the nationalist rhetoric of helping Britain and the British public by acting against an undesirable minority which is harming them – ‘End Fiddles And We All Benefit’ runs one headline. Similarly, the pun ‘Calls of Duty’ elevates ringing up to inform on others’ behaviour to the level of national service. The accusations of ‘fraud’ that the paper champions as civic duty are often based on little more than seeing someone who claims disability benefits doing something suspiciously active, or even leaving the house at all. The Sun is reinforcing the idea that if someone’s existence is to be subsidised by ‘our’ taxes, ‘we’ have a right to know (and perhaps to dictate) how they should behave (needless to say, this authoritarian moralising is grounded in complete ignorance of the realities of disability). In addition to the direct problem for those who will now be investigated by the Department of Work and Pensions, the effects of this agenda are more far ranging –  many disabilities charities have observed a sharp increase in resentment and abuse (including physical assault) on people with disabilities. This hostility focuses on the key tropes of tabloid coverage – that people with disabilities are a burden on (and separate from) tax payers and that they are faking their conditions. The DWP itself seems to be courting this press reaction, strategically releasing benefits figures to enable more stories and tailoring its own rhetoric to better match that of the tabloids. Any contemporary discussion of emergent fascism should consider the viciousness, misinformation and ‘othering’ of benefits claimants, especially those with disabilities, from the government and large sections of the popular press. Despite its unifying agenda, fascism is necessarily divisive.

At a time when there is an apparently deliberate campaign to demonise all benefits claimants, and when this is done through such familiar tropes as the language of disease and impurity, of conceiving some as illegitimate citizens, of presenting certain groups as being the enemies of economic recovery, it must no longer be considered hyperbolic to talk of fascism. This notion, the artificial divide between givers and takers, is one of the most important for understanding the nature of fascism and intolerance in modern times. It exists across the political spectrum, it exists in our own attitudes, and we must resist and challenge it. Various disabled rights groups have adopted the black triangle of the concentration camps as an emblem of the persecution they now feel. An onslaught is being felt across the disabled community and we must recognise it for what it is.

Advertisements